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'The Game of Their Lives': An Empty Cup

By Sean Daly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 22, 2005; Page C05

If you don't know the underdog tale of the 1950 U.S. men's World Cup team, here's a clue about its fate: The dude who directed rah-rah hits "Hoosiers" and "Rudy" has brought the Americans' soccer story to the big screen. David Anspaugh's "The Game of Their Lives" follows a ragtag squad of blue-collar immigrants, East Coast snoots and assorted misfits -- quickly assembled and given a smattering of days to practice together -- as they fight (of course), unite (naturally) and go on to stage one of the greatest upsets in U.S. sporting history (heck, yeah!).

As any footie fan will tell you, a U.S. men's team has never won the World Cup. Still, the 1950 squad's epic 1-0 victory over an England behemoth in an early round of the tournament certainly provided enough dramatic story lines to qualify as tearjerker potential.

As team leader Walter Bahr, Wes Bentley shows the emotional range of a tree in "The Game of Their Lives." (Ifc Films)

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But don't reach for those tissues just yet. Unlike the subjects it's chronicling, "The Game of Their Lives" is flat-footed, uninspired and disjointed from start to finish, a glaring disservice to the men who played the game. Anspaugh, so adept at weaving character development and dramatic tension into the populist charm of "Hoosiers," generates zero momentum leading up to the big game, held in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. The true weight of the achievement is never felt. Even the onfield action is choppy, ill-paced and hard to follow. (Narration from a growly Patrick Stewart helps not at all.)

It also doesn't help that otherwise reliable actors (plus former "Home Improvement" kid Zachery Ty Bryan) are stuck with a DOA script. Typical jock-flick tripe such as "Leave it all out there on the field" and "We're a team, we stick together" is lame but forgivable. What's not so easy to overlook is the forced, head-scratching speechifying about soccer being "democratic" and how it's the sport of the future in America. After that bit of wishful thinking, it comes as no surprise that the film was funded in part by people with ties to the Major League Soccer league; in an awkward coda, D.C. United prodigy Freddy Adu even comes trotting across the screen. (RFK Stadium, looking quite lovely, gets a cameo, too.)

Each of the film's heroes is given a personality quirk early on -- one guy hates to fly, one is getting married, one is a thug -- then soon enough given nothing at all. Poor Wes Bentley. The once promising actor plays U.S. star Walter Bahr, the team's emotional leader. Unfortunately, Bentley is completely without emotion and looks as if he's back in "American Beauty" waiting for that plastic bag to float by. You know a movie is destined for lameness when the best acting is put in by Gavin Rossdale -- aka the frontman for British rock band Bush, not to mention Mr. Gwen Stefani -- who plays sneering British soccer god Stanley Mortensen.

By the way, the U.S. team was eliminated from the 1950 World Cup after losing to Chile, a sobering historical fact the filmmakers fail to mention.

The Game of Their Lives (101 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG for mild language and thematic elements.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company